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Title defense never easy

Even stoic Argentinian finds the Masters crown can weigh heavy

Friday, April 01, 2011

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Angel Cabrera is not easily intimidated, but the 2009 Masters Tournament champion admits that defending his title in front of the world was a challenge to his Latin bravado.

Angel Cabrera (left), the 2009 Masters champion, helps at the green jacket ceremony for Phil Mickelson, last year's winner. (File/Staff)

"It's never easy to play at Augusta," Cabrera said. "There is pressure and you feel the pressure. Everybody is looking at the defending champion and wants to see what you're going to do."

The former caddie from Argentina returned to Augusta National Golf Club last April and set himself up in the Champions Locker Room. Then he replicated a traditional Argentinian asado (barbecue) for his green-jacketed peers.

This year he will get to attend the annual dinner of the Masters Club as a guest of host Phil Mickelson.

"Last year it was responsibility of being with the big boys and being the host of the dinner," he said. "It was something strange. But this year I can go and enjoy it more and be much more relaxed."

After all his ceremonial hype, he then had to go out and compete.

"There are only two shots in golf that make me nervous," Cabrera said. "One is the first shot of the tournament at Augusta. The other is the first shot on my home course in Córdoba."

Defending at the Masters has never been an easy task. Only three golfers have ever repeated as champions -- Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Tiger Woods (2001-02).

"They are just the best players ever," Cabrera said, shrugging.

Cabrera was in danger of missing the cut when he reached the 18th hole in the second round at 4-over par for the tournament. As he stood over a bending 18-footer for birdie, he worried that his chances of playing the weekend were ruined.

But he drained the downhill birdie putt and was relieved to find out that he made the cut on the number.

He played the weekend 4-under par to finish in a respectable tie for 18th.

"I felt all week that it was very special," Cabrera said after it was over. "I didn't have a very good start in the first two rounds, but in the end, I'm very pleased with where I am in the tournament -- that, I believe, is a very good finish."

Sixteen players have won multiple green jackets, and many others have threatened. Cabrera -- who also won the 2007 U.S. Open -- expects to have a chance to become the 17th on a course he considers one of his favorites and best suited for his powerful game.

"The hardest thing is to win the first time," he said.

Cabrera contended at the Quail Hollow Championship in his first start after the Masters, finishing third behind Rory McIlroy and Mickelson. But he has struggled since.

He developed tendinitis in his left hand last summer that hindered him through the PGA Tour's playoffs.

"I went to the British Open and didn't feel good there," he said. "Then I really hurt my hand there. It had me worried and I couldn't work the way I wanted to or practice the right way."

He ended up taking a four-month hiatus in the off-season to allow his hand to heal while also undergoing repeated oral surgeries to have some teeth implanted. Both the layoff and the dental work that forced him to eat mostly pasta and soup were not pleasurable experiences for a celebrated carnivore who had never rested more than two weeks since turning pro as a teenager.

"That's behind me," said a noticeably trimmer Cabrera. "I'm working and just going forward. Right now I just work from week to week and then I will have to see where I am when I get to Augusta.

''I'm feeling good now. I knew after four months' layoff that it was going to take awhile, but I feel good."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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